Carved In Stone

Recently, I was walking downtown with a friend and I suggested that we should cross the street, even though there wasn’t a crosswalk. Yes, it was jaywalking. I followed up by saying what I’ve said many times – that I see most rules as more like suggestions, and I added this phrase: “For me nothing is carved in stone.” Then I paused and added, “except for values and mission.” It was an off-hand comment in the midst of a simple conversation, but the more I think about it, it’s really true.

While we want to believe that we control life, our circumstances and our experiences, the truth is that nearly everything around us is and will always be fluid and subject to change (often unexpectedly). This uncertainty is part of the adventure experience that is life. While very little is carved in stone, the opportunity exists for each of us to choose to carve a couple of things into stone – specifically, our values and our mission (both personal and organizational).

If you visualize something being carved in stone (especially before we had today’s technology), you probably think of a time-consuming and difficult process, yet there’s something meaningful about the idea of carving something into stone. Think about Moses and the Ten Commandments – they were carved into stone. From the beginning of human civilization, people carved their stories into the stone. Some of human history we have learned comes from what was carved into stone or onto tablets. There’s something permanent and enduring about carving anything into stone, and that’s where values and mission come into play.

While our values may change during our lives, once we claim and proclaim them they’re essentially carved in stone and are not meant to be bent or nullified by regular exceptions or buts (e.g. “I know that we value our customers, but in this case we need to preserve our profit margin.”).

Values represent what you stand for – not just when it’s easy, but especially when it’s difficult. Whether personal values or organizational values, they’re meant to be the non-negotiables of your life or business. Values are the things you are willing to hold on to and protect at all costs, even when it would be easier or perhaps even more profitable to ignore those values.

In the Broadway play Hamilton, there’s a recurring theme between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr regarding the fact that Burr is unwilling to stand for things. Burr’s initial advice to Hamilton is to talk less and smile more, and “Don’t let them know what you’re against or what you’re for.” In response, Hamilton challenges Burr: “If you stand for nothing, Burr, what’ll you fall for?” Finally, late in the show, Hamilton is asked whether he supports Thomas Jefferson (a man whom he has never before supported) or Aaron Burr for President, and Hamilton supports Jefferson saying, “But when all is said and all is done, Jefferson has beliefs. Burr has none.”

Where are you with your values and mission? Do you have values? Does your organization have values that are living and breathing? Do you have a personal mission beyond yourself that you’re willing to fight for? Do you have a corporate mission that is more than just words?

Very little in life is (or should be) carved in stone, but values and mission are the exception – what have you carved into stone, and what are you willing to carve today in your life and your leadership?

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